Ditch your dead tree planner

I used to cart a 12″ by 9″ binder whenever I had to go to work appointments. I got that binder thanks to a Priority Management course a former boss sent me to. (I owe him a thank-you for that.)

(The instructor, Andy Sherwood – “Sherwood like the hockey stick” – stated that nobody can “manage time” since it just happens on its own, whereas people can manage their priorities.)

What’s in a planner?

That binder contained the obligatory calendar, plus sheets for contact info, task lists, pockets for business cards and other useful stuff. The binder proved a fantastic learning tool, helping me learn to manage my priorities. Do your work, zip it up and walk away with it in tow – easy.

Shortcomings of paper planners

That binder was fine while I stayed put at a desk in the office. It wasn’t so great when I had to travel for work. That’s when I kicked myself for not choosing the smaller format binder, since the one I had took up lots of space and made it difficult to limit myself to a carry-on when I flew anywhere.

The answer to this dilemma arrived in the office via colleagues who adopted the then-newfangled Palm Pilot. All the calendars, task lists, contacts, notes and so forth now fit in their pockets! I bought the first-generation Pilot from a tech-enthusiast colleague (I was a repeat customer, later buying his Palm III and Palm Tungsten) and I was off.

I installed the Palm Desktop software on my computer, entered my data and synchronized it all to the handheld. Two AAA batteries kept me going for weeks, if not longer. Such a small price to pay for so many forms of freedom from the tyranny of paper. It was magical! And so light!

Looking back on that switch, it made sense for so many reasons, new shiny technology being the least of them.

Easy synchronization of planner information

I won’t speak for all owners of paper-based calendars and planners, but I did NOT photocopy every page of my binder once a week as backup. Using the Palm system, I didn’t have to. My “planner” (i.e. the information it held) lived in two places, not one the way it did on paper, since when I worked at my computer, the Palm lived in its sync cradle. So I never again worried about losing the information I use to keep my commitments.

It would have been a pain to lose the Palm, but if I did, I had the data on my PC. Then I could buy another Palm and synchronize the data onto it. The binder offered no such peace of mind.

Managing multiple calendars

I once “segmented” different roles in my life. For instance, I didn’t put social commitments, squash games or other “non-work” events in my paper calendar for fear of turning the thing into a scribbled mess. This habit occasionally caused double-bookings, forgotten bookings, and the headaches that come with missed appointments.

With a digital planner, I can record concurrent events in my calendar. I rarely do this, but it’s a handy feature when I need it. I get a better view of my commitments and can better organize my priorities, travel time and life in general.

Easier and more productive travel

Stepping onto a plane carrying a Palm device in my pocket instead of a paper planner in my bag made life lots easier. Not only was it easier to pack; I found myself using it to review my calendar, plan future appointments, write emails (that were sent once I synchronized the device to my computer) and do other productive work without needing to reach up to the overhead bin, inconveniencing fellow passengers in the process.

A system I can trust

Having faith in a planner, or system, is a central tenet in David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. I’ve used GTD for several years to refine my ability to manage priorities, but I couldn’t do this if my tools weren’t adequate.

No planner offers the features inherent in even the most basic digital tools that let me do things like:

  • accept calendar invitations, saving me the work of entering appointments myself.
  • easily start contact or calendar entries from emails. (The software recognizes and underlines, or outlines, things like phone numbers and dates and times. Touch, or click, the underlined/outlined text and the system starts the entry with the appropriate fields already filled out.)
  • keep every piece of information I want to without overstuffing it.

This list of features goes on for some time. Yet for all this, I still meet professionals who hang onto their paper planners.

Paper is still great…

I still like paper too. I journal every day. Each entry starts with a few words and definitions that I get from vocabulary mailing lists. I use those words during my 20 minutes of daily journaling. I write using one of my two fountain pens. Writing longhand is a great way to shake loose thoughts that might be crouching in the recesses of my mind, thoughts I might not be able to elucidate without the writing.

… but paper won’t do for planning

But paper doesn’t make for an adequate organizational tool. Let’s recap:

  • I can’t back it up (and that scares me).
  • A paper planner wouldn’t hold the 4,000+ contact entries I’ve accumulated (some of which arrived fully formed thanks to .vcf attachments that slot themselves into my contact app).
  • A digital planner easily holds not just contact info, but context on how I came across that contact info, in the contact card. Sometimes it’s lengthy, like an email exchange. Sometimes it’s brief, like a date and a few quick notes from a conference.
  • A paper planner can’t be quickly searched for text that I know is associated with a given event, contact, or other object. (I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned this feature in this post… and I’m sure there are other advantages to digital planners I’m missing here.)

Making the switch from paper to digital planners

If you’re serious about staying organized – and minimizing the time it takes to do so – digitize your planner.

Where do you start?

Native applications

Try the applications that came with your phone or computer. Smartphones tend to have contact lists, calendars and so forth. Macs ship with the requisite applications, while you can buy those applications for PCs (the most common being Microsoft Outlook). Make sure you back up your information, whether at home or online.

Online applications

Services like Google and Yahoo offer calendars, contact lists and so forth. Some services are free, while others charge fees. These tend to be pretty reliable, which mitigates the need for a backup (but I’d back it up anyway).

Conclusion

Just start. Today. You’ll get much more out of even the most basic digital tools than you do from your dead tree planner. Don’t worry about finding shortcomings. They won’t limit you, since you can recognize them and shop for better tools if/when you need to.

You’re embarking on a continuous learning cycle, and that might seem like more work than it’s worth. Do it anyway. That work, that focus, will pay off in fewer missed appointments, misplaced phone numbers and other mishaps that analog systems leave you vulnerable to. That focus will help you stay on track more efficiently. Make doing so a daily priority.

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